In Nation Within: The History of the American Occupation of Hawai'i, Tom Coffman exhibits a radical shift by historians in interpreting political events post-1893. When Coffman first published his book in 1998, his title reflected a [End Page 186] common misunderstanding of annexation. But in 2009, he revised the title by replacing the word Annexation with the word Occupation. Coffman admitted he made this change because of international law (p. xvi). By shifting the interpretive lens to international law, Coffman not only changed the view to occupation, but would also change the view of the government's overthrow in 1893. While the book lacks any explanation of applicable international laws, he does an excellent job of providing an easy reading of facts for international law to interpret.
In international law, there is a fundamental rule that diplomats have a duty to not intervene in the internal affairs of the sovereign State they are accredited to. Every sovereign State has a right "to establish, alter, or abolish, its own municipal constitution [and] no foreign State can interfere with the exercise of this right."1 For an ambassador, a violation of this rule would have grave consequences. An offended State could proceed "against an ambassador as a public enemy . . . if justice should be refused by his own sovereign."2
John Stevens, the American minister to the Hawaiian Kingdom arrived in the islands in the summer of 1889. As Coffman notes, Stevens was already fixated with annexation when he "wrote that the 'golden hour' for resolving the future status of Hawai'i was at hand," (p. 114) and began to collude with Lorrin Thurston (p. 116). Thurston was not an American citizen but rather a third-generation Hawaiian subject. Stevens' opportunity to intervene and seek annexation would occur after Lili'uokalani "attempted to promulgate a new constitution, [which] was the event Thurston and Stevens had been waiting for" (p. 120).
On January 16, Stevens orders the landing of U.S. troops and "tells Thurston that if the annexationists control three buildings—'Iolani Palace, Ali'iolani Hale, and the Archives—he will announce American recognition of the new government" (p. 121). The following day, "Stevens tells the queen's cabinet that he will protect the annexationists if they are attacked or arrested by government police" (p. 121). However, unbeknown to Stevens, the insurgents only took over Ali'iolani Hale, which housed "clerks of the Kingdom" (p. 125). One of the insurgents, Samuel Damon, knowing Stevens' recognition was premature, sought to convince Lili'uokalani that her resistance was futile because the United States had already recognized the new government, and that she should order Marshal Charles Wilson, head of the government police, to give up the police station. Wilson was planning an assault on the government building to apprehend the insurgents for treason, in spite of the presence of U.S. troops.
International law clearly interprets these events as intervention and Stevens to be a "public enemy" of the Hawaiian Kingdom. This was the same conclusion reached by President Grover Cleveland, whose investigation was [End Page 187] an indictment of Stevens and the commander of the USS Boston, Captain Gilbert Wiltse. "The lawful Government of Hawai'i was overthrown without the drawing of a sword or the firing of a shot," Cleveland said, "by a process every step of which, it may be safely asserted, is directly traceable to and dependent for its success upon the agency of the United States acting through its diplomatic and naval representatives" (p. 144). Because of diplomatic immunity, the United States, as the sending State, would be obliged to prosecute Stevens and Wiltse for treason under American law.
On December 20, 1893, a resolution of the U.S. Senate called for a separate investigation to be conducted by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Chaired by Senator John Morgan, a vocal annexationist, the purpose of the senate investigation was to repudiate Cleveland's investigation and to vindicate Stevens and Wiltse of criminal liability...